Yesspeak is a portrait of the long-standing English progressive rock band Yes, who turned the ear of the rock world with their kaleidoscopic signature track “Roundabout” in 1971. The film focuses on the band as it stood in 2003, during their 35th anniversary tour. Spanning two full-length DVDs, the foundation of Yesspeak is a series of interviews with band members. Although the band does most of the talking, Yesspeak is narrated by Roger Daltry, lead singer of The Who, a band who, along with The Beatles, influenced early Yes and is cited as such by band members. Clearly intended for fans, Yesspeak is a straightforward and unpretentious look at a group of classic rock veterans on the road and amidst their domestic life. While Yesspeak is not a concert film, clips and longer excerpts of live material from the 2003 tour are interspersed or appended to the interview sections. Also, a full-length audio concert is a nice added bonus feature on the second disc.
As their 1983 track “Changes” suggests, Yes has transformed over the years since its initial formation in London in 1968, with individuals coming and going and often cycling back. Regardless of changes, the band is known for their virtuosity, expansiveness, and ability to play together as a unit. Remarkably, at their best the band achieves a holistic balance in which no one is the leader or focus of attention. At the time of filming (2003), together vocalist Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire had been a constant throughout the band’s history (with the exception of Anderson being replaced on one album). This 35th anniversary lineup is stressed repeatedly as the “classic” iteration of Yes and, correspondingly, they focused on their 1970s progressive material as opposed to that of their more pop-rock 1980s-1990s period that was played by a significantly different lineup. Yesspeak focuses on the band members discussing their music, touring, changes in the lineup, and other matters mostly directly connected with the band. They don’t, for example, get into politics or current events.
Each band member receives a “spotlight” treatment in the film, usually interviewed in his home in America’s West Coast. This focus on the individual is appropriate since in the live context Yes is known for giving each member of the band solo time onstage with the larger goal of showing how the components of the band fit together to create their trademark sound. Diminutive and upbeat Jon Anderson comes off as relaxed and spiritually inclined. Like Jon’s singing voice, his speaking voice is high-pitched and he displays an open and positive demeanor. Anderson is the New Age optimist, an Aquarian pixie.
Bassist Chris Squire is the Rock Star of the band, a showman who cavorts indefatigably about the stage. In his solo spot live, Squire’s ability to create energy and fullness of sound alone or with drummer Alan White is most impressive. Squire’s bass parts are notable for their inventive and melodic qualities but he can also play with great force. Along with Paul McCartney and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, Squire can be credited with opening up possibilities for the bass guitar in rock music. The only member of Yes to have played on every album, Squire comes off as a nice enough bloke, an old rocker who has probably had a few drinks and puffs in his day.
Long-haired keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman has been in and out of the band several times over the history. In Yesspeak he is a goofy, good-natured, old English rock star who nevertheless seems fairly grounded for someone with a reputation for making pretentious (if commercially-successful) solo concept albums in the 1970s, magnets for punk’s scorn. Wakeman has kind of a self-conscious Spinal Tap thing going, with his wizard-like appearance and over-the-top banks of keyboards. Although he can be a clown, Wakeman also shows a serious, introspective side, mentioning his run-ins with illness and expressing feelings of “living on borrowed time” and gratefulness for his opportunity to play with Yes.
Drummer Alan White is a rock. He has kept the complex strands of the band’s music together with his firm foundation ever since their 1972 tour. The inventive drummer Bill Bruford, who had played on Yes’s acclaimed and forward-thinking early 1970s platters Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972), and their three predecessor LPs, unceremoniously left the band to join Robert Fripp’s King Crimson after Close to the Edge was recorded. Alan White had built his credibility by playing with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the Plastic Ono Band and in Joe Cocker’s group. In the film he is seen enjoying the fruits of rock’n’roll stardom, perched on his boat or enjoying his Seattle view.
Looking slightly Tolkien-esque, Steve Howe is an excellent guitarist with an appealing and broad-ranging style, drawing from everything from flamenco to blues to classical. Before Yes, Howe played with the London psychedelic band Tomorrow (“My White Bicycle”), peers of Pink Floyd and The Soft Machine, and plays in 1980s hit-makers Asia (“Heat of the Moment”). Howe comes off as a passionate lover of guitars and sincerely dedicated to his craft. Somewhat comically, Howe cherishes his favorite axe, a 1960s Gibson hollow-body, as though it were his baby, caressing it and buying it seats on airplanes. Howe comes off as the most earnest member of the band, concerned about the nuances of their live sound. Yesspeak shows that Howe’s arrival in the band in 1970 fulfilled the band’s sound and identity.
Yes 2011 update: Although Anderson, Howe, and Squire would seem to be a necessary triad within the band, recently a new lead singer, Benoit David, has replaced Anderson on their current album and tour. This had happened only once before, in 1980 for the Drama album, on which producer Trevor Horn (The Buggles, Art of Noise) sang and Yes’s current (2011) keyboardist, Geoff Downes (The Buggles, Asia), played. The new lineup is currently touring to support their new album Fly from Here (2011), the band’s first album in a decade.
On the whole, Yesspeak will provide entertainment for long-time fans of the band. The documentary would probably be best enjoyed split up over two or three viewings, since the style and material is fairly homogeneous throughout the two discs.
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